The founder of Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts—the industry’s tool for preservation of generations of live theatre—isn’t a former actor or director. She’s not a pedagogically trained theatre historian or the great-grandaughter of some theatrical icon. In the 1960s, Betty Corwin— then a mother of three living in Connecticut—was working as a volunteer at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx when she decided to apply for a training program within the psychiatric department to become a social worker. To apply, Corwin had to write an autobiography. In rediscovering her personal history, she found her future.
“As I was writing the autobiography, I found myself thinking that the most exciting time of my life was when I worked in the theatre,” recalls Corwin, who earlier had worked as a production assistant and script reader for producers on Broadway in her younger days. Corwin never finished the autobiography. Instead of applying for the course, she reconnected with her old theatre contacts, determined to contribute to the industry in a meaningful way. Her sister-in-law Helen Harvey, a theatrical agent at the William Morris Agency, suggested to her one evening: “Why don’t you just tape and preserve Broadway shows? Everybody talks about it and nobody does anything about it.”
Corwin first thought it was crazy, far beyond her reach. But the idea stuck with her. “The next morning I woke up and I thought: ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’” she recalls. “That was it. I was going to try and do it.”
She immediately reached out to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The response? “What makes you think you can do this?” Truthfully, Corwin didn’t know she could, but she wanted to try. It was enough for Thor Wood, head of the Theatre Division at NYPL at the time. He gave Corwin a desk, a telephone, and a three-month timeline to get her initiative off the ground. Corwin needed to get five unions on her side to move forward: Actors Equity Association, the Dramatists Guild, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), the union for stagehands and technicians (IATSE), and the union of professional musicians (Local 802).
Approval took a lot longer than three months. After nearly two years, she still needed clearance from Local 802 and IATSE to begin filming on Broadway. “They wouldn’t answer my phone calls. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. All she knew was that she had a cause worth fighting for.
“I thought it was a sin that once these wonderful productions were gone that they were gone forever,” explains Corwin. “The terrific production of The Glass Menagerie with Laurette Taylor (1945), or Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire—gone forever. That really troubled me.”
In 1970, Corwin took matters into her own hands. She marched into the IATSE headquarters on 47th Street and introduced herself in person. “It was like a scene from [Elia Kazan’s 154 film] On the Waterfront,” says Corwin. “There was this guy with his feet up on the desk, leaning back and smoking a cigar.” Corwin asked to see the President, Richard F. Walsh and she laid out her case for the archive: She named the other unions who had already come on board, and reiterated that the program would be for education and research purposes only, not the general public. “After about an hour he stood up and said: ‘Enough! You’ve convinced me,” says Corwin. By the next morning, she had a signed agreement from the union.
In celebration of the IATSE partnership (and the effort behind it), Corwin established the tradition of giving Hershey chocolate bars to stagehands at every production filmed for the archive since its launch—a practice her successor, former assistant Patrick Hoffman, maintains today.
While pending approval from the fifth and final union, Corwin faced her next dilemma: how to film a Broadway show with little-to-no budget. In preparation, she decided to film an Off-Broadway production. With “the cheapest cameraman in New York,” the first show taped for the archive was a Japanese musical titled The Golden Bat at the Sheridan Square Playhouse. It was 1970, the very same year that she finalized approval from all five unions, and TOFT was founded.
TOFT has continued to expand throughout the decades and, since its launch, now counts over 4,000 Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional performances in its vault. Actors of all levels view past works to research a role, directors find inspiration, journalists discover context—all made possible by Corwin.
“We’ve really come a long way since the beginning,” says Corwin, who was recently honored with a Special Lifetime Achievement Award from The League of Professional Theatre Women. A recipient of a 2001 Special Tony Award, the same year she announced her retirement and resigned as the director of the archive, her passion for the theatre still burns. At 97, Corwin’s autobiography can now helm her as a champion of theatre and the keeper of cultural treasure.
A list of available TOFT titles can be found online here. The recordings are available to theatre professionals, students, or researchers, and viewed in NYPL’s screening room. Advance appointments can be made by calling (212) 870-1642.